Editorial: Elections Don’t Change Much

By Becky O’Malley
Friday December 01, 2006

The Planet’s not the only publication that gets letters from obsessive people. The big metro daily is more concerned than we are about filtering them out, but a few fanatics sneak into their letters columns too. Thursday they ran a letter from a guy down the peninsula who’s annoyed that Berkeley-based national columnist Robert Scheer continues to spotlight the lunacy of the national administration. His beef with Bob: 

“Is it my imagination, or does Robert Scheer write about the same thing week after week? Every Wednesday, it seems the thrust of his column is that Iraq is a disaster and Bush is a fool and a liar. Aren’t there any other subjects to write about?” 

The obsessive correspondent even put his computer to work as a critic, running a program that counted how many times various words were used in 54 Scheer columns. Discarding small grammatical connectors, the computer confirmed his direst suspicions about Scheer’s topics: “….the word ‘Bush’ ranks way up there as No. 13 (used 324 times or an average of six times per column). Also high on the list are ‘Iraq’ (ranked No. 16), ‘president’ (No. 24), ‘war’ (No. 32), ‘U.S.’ (No. 33), and ‘administration’ (No. 41).”  

Well, yes, Scheer does write about Bush a lot. Bush is still, unfortunately, the president of the United States, last time we checked, and he’s still screwing up on a daily basis, in Iraq in particular, which might explain why that country’s name is also high on Bob’s topic list.  

In contrast, the national columnists who live and work inside the Beltway in Washington are fascinated by the small-town gossip aspects of their local legislature, somewhat in the same way the Planet might seem to be fascinated by the interlocking shenanigans of Berkeley’s developers, Chamber of Commerce and councilmembers. The “who’s up, who’s down” aspect of political bodies (will Nancy and Steny play well together? Is Darryl in Tom’s pocket?) is the thinking person’s sports page. But over the long haul the pundits who are supposed to be tracking the national and international scene (including the Planet’s own Conn Hallinan and Bob Burnett) must pay special attention to old No. 43, the administration. It’s tempting, with the Democrats poised to take over in Congress next month, to think that a big rain’s gonna come, that justice will rain down like water in 2007. Not much, however, will change in the next two years, in Washington, in Sacramento, or in Berkeley. It’s the administrations—the folks on the ground—who will still be calling the shots, and the new electeds won’t be able to do much about it in two years. 

The word “administration” has taken on a dual meaning in recent years. It covers both the permanent bureaucracies which run the country at the national, state and local levels and the increasingly small percentage of government executives who are elected or are appointed by elected officials. The power of the professional bureaucratic class grew in the twentieth century because of the perceived misdeeds of political appointees in executive jobs, so that now things are mostly run by people who aren’t held accountable in elections.  

This change was spearheaded by the “Goo-Goos,” a grand old epithet revived in Tom Wolfe’s delicious send-up of New York’s impotent Landmarks Preservation Commission in last week’s Sunday Times. He defined Goo-Goo as “an old City Hall term for believers in Good Government, by which the regulars meant idealistic lightweights whose feet seldom touched the ground.” 

Term limits is Sacramento’s Goo-Goo problem, coupled with the results of gerrymandering. Thanks to “reforms,” every couple of years a new class of naifs shows up, and the savvy old legislators join the ranks of the permanent lobbyists. That’s why we have ex-senator Dion Aroner now fronting for Pacific Steel Casting, while her ex-boss, ex-representative now-mayor Tom Bates, has been appointed to the regulatory body which seems unable to clean up PSC and his wife the ex-mayor now-assemblymember keeps things under control in Sacramento. Outsiders don’t stand a chance against such well-oiled and experienced machines, the likes of which are operating all over the state. Calling these slick organizations machines does not mean that they’re taking graft, of course, but simply that they’ve optimized the process of producing the right results for the right people.  

The Goo-Goos in California long ago got rid of partisan elections for local office. The result is that you don’t really know what you’re voting for, so elections turn into beauty contests and the professionals continue business-as-usual regardless of who wins. The Green Party has been trying to change this scenario, with some recent successes, particularly in Richmond, but in most places staff rules. 

Anyone masochistic enough to watch the Berkeley City Council in action (or more properly The Berkeley City Council Inaction) can see the results of the leave-them-alone school of governance. Staff delivers, sometimes at the council meeting itself, lengthy (and costly) reports which should form the basis for votes, but in subsequent council discussions it’s painfully apparent that most of the participants haven’t even read their weekend packets, let alone the last minute submissions. Nevertheless—surprise, surprise—what the staff endorses almost always passes with few changes. 

The recent byplay over the Creeks Ordinance was a good demonstration of how councilmembers miss the action. The new ordinance was passed in concept a week or so ago with the usual late-night fancy footwork by the mayor, but then three councilmembers, presumably after hearing from irate constituents, charged that they wuz robbed and wanted to start over. They don’t seem to have understood what was on the table, nor did they seem to get it the second time around. Sadly, this is far from unusual.